3 September 2007

Such a thing as society

Is there such a thing as 'society', over and above a collection of individuals? Curiously, the question is now associated in many people’s minds with Margaret Thatcher, who said:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!", "I am homeless, the Government must house me!", and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

The argument may of course originally have been mentioned to her by one or more of her intellectual supporters. It has also been pointed out that it was made in a fairly informal context, i.e. an interview with Woman’s Own (in 1987).

There are several ways of interpreting the question. Unfortunately, attention tends to be focused on the least interesting one. The trivial answer is, “yes, of course there is”. The word is useful in the same way that the concept of ‘global warming’ is useful — it is a shorthand for describing complex phenomena by means of aggregating and averaging.

Probably one can go further, and say that there are social phenomena which, while ultimately reducible to individual behaviour, only become observable at the aggregate level. They are, in other words, a kind of (weakly) emergent behaviour. For example, to say that "Italy advanced technologically in the sixteenth century" is theoretically reducible to the behaviour of individual Italians, but it would be difficult to do so, and the aggregate phenomenon is not readily predictable simply from information about the individuals.

However, to say that patterns emerge at an aggregate level which are not conveniently reducible to descriptions of individual behaviour is not the same as saying that a different kind of entity emerges at that level. There is clearly a sense in which methodological individualism — the claim that the whole is ultimately nothing but the sum of its parts — is trivially true, and anything more ambitious than weak emergence — e.g. social holism — is 'obviously' false.

The arguments that individuals are influenced by their social environment (situationism), or even that they are largely a function of that environment (constructionism), are really concerned with a different issue from the one raised by Thatcher's assertion. Even if the actions of individuals are always traceable to societal influences, those actions are still the basic components of social behaviour, and the latter must ultimately admit explanation in terms of the former.

However, all the above points are somewhat incidental to the issue typically at stake when the Thatcher quote is discussed. Reactions to it are more often concerned with a different matter altogether: that of whether ontological or moral priority should be given to the individual over the social group. In other words, the argument is really about the conflict between political individualism and communitarianism.


Kønig Hasemörder said...

The moment we began to enter the agricultural revolution, a major shift in our species existence occurred. We began to become independent of purely wild natural forces for our existence. Only a tittle of humans exist as families/tribes without the aid of societies collective knowledge and technology. Those tribes are destined for death because no group of people exist in complete physical isolation. Therefore every homo sapien must become a member of society because humankind has reached a population where disease can and will spread pandemically without the counter of technological and cooperative measures. The importance of "our" leaders and The people who foster them, being rational is also an essential element to the continuing existence of society.

Natural selection balances the populations with brutal deaths. But when partial societies began to emerge this negated natural selection. "Isolated" societies will then ether merge into one diverse yet unified community, the Human society, or destroy each other with capacity collective mental activity enables. Society does indeed exist and is greater than the sum of it's parts. What other name could be given to a thing that has the power to remove nearly all want and suffering from humankind and at the same time could will it's own existence extinct.

Sir James Robison said...

Thatcher was right - there is no society. Just live here and watch this in action. Therefore, moves by those appointed to take care of administrative details of the collective, i.e. democracy, are not honest when they interpret that to mean to administer the well-being of that collective, i.e. to legislate against certain of its citizens who, by definition, do not exist.

mtraven said...

There is always tension between individuals and society. To say that society doesn't exist is merely a stupid way to try to resolve that tension. It indicates a weakness of mind, an inability to hold concepts from different ontological levels and think about the relations between them. Anyone who can't perform this rather simple mental feat has no business pontificating.

Clovis Sangrail said...

Your commenters seem to have forgotten the context in which Thatcher's remarks were made-even though she reiterates themn briefly in the preamble to the famous one-liner.

Her point, and it's a vital one (completely forgotten in the academic environment where I work, and where her name is still only ever hissed), is that for society to act it's the individuals who compose it who must act. They may do so in the midst of and at the behest of some collective; nevertheless to think that society acts without the instrumentality of a human action is to live in cloud-cuckoo land. The sort of cloud-cuckoo land which is where all failings, ills and evils are laid, like foundlings, at the
door of society.

Her point that `people look to themselves first' has begun to sound quite strange. In 21st century Britain a large proportion of society does not look to itself first, it looks to Government and here, more than anywhere we see the real thrust of her remark: Governments may act only through individuals and only with the connivance or complicity of
individuals. In Thatcher's youth, people cut out the middle man where possible.

Thatcher knew perfectly well that society existed and she valued it. Her statement was addressed to the majority and she was making a fairly sinmple point which clever people (on the whole) still fail miserably to understand.